Vietnam QuickTrip: A detailed guide

So, I’m going to start a short series of posts based on my previous travels, called #QuickTrips. These posts will be focused on how to visit some cities or countries if you don’t have much time. As you might be aware, I’m planning my longer term travel right now. However, for my past trips I had a constraint due to my available vacations days. This would range from just a day (as it happened to me in Ireland, such a shame), up to a week in a country.

I spent five full days in my Vietnam QuickTrip. It was part of a 20 days trip to Southeast Asia, in which I arrived to Vietnam, then went to Thailand, visited Malaysia, and spent just a few hours in a small city from Japan called Narita. I spent 3 entire days flying (it’s a long way from Costa Rica). This was at the end of March 2016. And this is how my Vietnam QuickTrip was, in summary:

  • Arrive to Ho Chi Min on Thursday around midnight. Didn’t spend time in Ho Chi Min (but I’ll go for sure this time 😉 )
  • Flight to Da Nang on Friday morning. Visit Marble Mountains
  • Bus (arranged by the hotel) to Hue on Saturday morning. Private driver in Hue to visit some tombs and the Imperial City
  • Bus (arranged by the hotel) to Phong Nha on Sunday morning. Visit to Phong Nha Cave
  • Visit to Paradise Cave (Phong Nha) on Monday morning. Bus to Dong Hoi in the afternoon. Overnight train to Hanoi
  • All day tour to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc from Hanoi on Tuesday. I didn’t have time to see Hanoi (shame on me as well!)
  • Flight to Thailand on Wednesday morning
Buddha in the Marble Mountains - Da Nang, Vietnam
Buddha in the Marble Mountains – Da Nang, Vietnam

There are people who take 3 weeks just to explore the north of Vietnam, and they can’t see everything. So of course I didn’t have the time to see everything Vietnam has to offer. And believe me, it’s A LOT. Vietnam has such a wide diversity of sights, food and culture to offer, that I think I could get back twenty times and still miss very important stuff. That’s how good it is.

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Arrival to Ho Chi Min

I got to the airport around midnight, after an almost two hours delay in Hong Kong. Got my visa on arrival, and got to my hotel around 2 or 3 am, for a couple of hours of sleep. Then walking back to the airport for my 5.30 am flight to Da Nang and start my Vietnam QuickTrip. I decided to walk to the airport (it was a 10 minutes walk), which I regretted since it was really hot and humid (even at 5 am, damn!).

Accommodation

I just needed a comfortable place very close to the airport, where I could take a shower and get some rest after a long journey. So, I decided to stay here (non-affiliate). There’s free pickup to and from the airport. If you decide to stay here, I’d recommend to take advantage of it, Ho Chi Min can be really hot and humid.

Transportation to the next city

I took an airplane to Da Nang via Jetstar (an economic airline). There are other economic airlines available, and it’s also possible to take a train. The train is a long overnight journey, not as comfortable, but you’ll get a real Vietnamese experience. If you’re short on time though, the airplane is the way to go.

Da Nang: Marble Mountains!

The Marble Mountains are a real marvel 🙂 Small altars inside caves, how cool is that?! In the Marble Mountains, you’ll find multiple caves and pagodas (temples), and I swear it felt like a spiritual place. If you get to the very top, you’ll get a cool view from the city. Actually, all the sights you’ll take from there are not to be forgotten. I have to be honest, this was one of the places I wanted to visit the most. And I wasn’t disappointed. On top of that, it was my first time in Asia and the first place I visited during my trip 😀

You can ask for arrangement of transportation at your hotel, just ask them how much it will cost beforehand. Make sure you take comfortable clothes and walking shoes, as you’re up for a good walk! Just make sure you don’t wear shorts, or sleeveless shirts, or show too much cleavage, as you could be denied your entry because of this. At least in my case, I decided to walk rather than taking the elevator (15.000 VND when I visited), those steps aren’t easy if you’re not fit. I’m not fit so I know what I’m talking about 🙂 The entrance fee at the time was 15.000 VND, and it didn’t include taking the elevator.

You might spend around 2-4 hours in there. There are several shops around there, however they were a little pricey (just as in almost any touristic place in the world).

Small worship place inside a cave - Da Nang, Vietnam
Small worship place inside a cave – Da Nang, Vietnam

Even though Da Nang is still a touristic place, it’s less crowded than some others. That was the first time someone “asked” to take a selfie with me (because I was a foreigner). This actually happens to a lot of people in Asia. So, this guy was with a group of friends, and he walked towards me. I thought he was going to handle me his cellphone to take a photo of his group of friends. Instead he came close, made some signs and then took a selfie of us ha! I just smiled, tried to tell him my name (as I suspected he was trying to do the same), shook hands, and then he went back to his group and all took a look at the photo. Feeling like a rockstar in Southeast Asia! Yeah babe!

Accommodation

I stayed at Danang Beach Hotel, it was clean, had friendly staff, and they helped me arrange transportation to Marble Mountains and Hue. It’s not the cheapest place in Da Nang (although it wasn’t expensive either), and there are a couple of local places to have breakfast nearby (you can buy at the hotel but it’s wasn’t included in my fee).

You can book this hotel via Agoda or Booking.

Transportation to next city

I took a private sleeper bus (even though the ride takes only a few hours), arranged by my hotel in Da Nang. I got a very good price and they dropped me at my hotel in Hue. The ride was a little bit more less than 3 hours, including a 20 minutes stop in the middle. If you want to take the train, you can buy tickets in this site (non-affiliate). The official Vietnamese Railways website is this one. Some other sites such as vietnamrailways.net, vietnam-railway.com and vietnamrailway.com are just travel agencies, and will cost you more than the official website, even though the process is simpler. You can get some additional detailed information on how to buy train tickets in Vietnam in this page.

Hue: The majestic Imperial City

So, the bus left me at the very center of Hue, walked less than a block to my hotel, and went for a walk around the city. Had some street food, watched a little of the city, and then went for an all afternoon visit to several touristic places in Hue. My hotel contacted a private driver, who drove me a good part of the morning and the afternoon to three different places, and then left me close to the Imperial City. After visiting the Imperial City, I took a tuk-tuk back to the city center, did some grocery shopping and back to my hotel at the end of the day.

This is how the Hue QuickTrip went:

Tomb of Khai Dinh

This place shows up as Lăng Khải Định (Ứng Lăng) in Google Maps, and it can be around 20-30 minutes driving from the center of Hue. The emperor who was buried here, reigned during 9 years, and the construction of the tomb lasted 11 years.

You’ll have to go over a few steps (don’t worry, I’ve terrible condition and had no problem with them), to see the salutation court first. Then you’ll find multiple statues of horses, warriors and elephants along with two obelisks. Finally, you’ll get to the small palace where you’ll find the tomb and a small antique exhibition.

You won’t need to spend much time in here (1.5 hours would be enough if you want to take plenty of photos and read a lot of the descriptions of the exhibition). However, take into consideration that the place is usually very crowded. There’s also a small fee to enter (100.000 VND at that moment).

Something funny that happened while we were driving to this tomb: We went for most than 1 km, and a lot of scooters were going in the wrong direction, since it was a one way street. Or at least that’s what I thought, as Vietnam has a hectic traffic. During all that time, my driver was just honking, and the scooters would drive out of our way. Then a trailer came in the opposite direction of us, and my driver switched lanes. Then I realized, we were the ones going on the wrong lane during all that time! But the scooters had to switch lanes, just because that’s how it works in Vietnam 🙂

Tomb of Khai Dinh - Hue, Vietnam
As many other places, the Tomb of Khai Dinh was full of tourists – Hue, Vietnam

Tomb of Tu Duc

After driving 20 minutes from the first tomb, we got to the tomb of Tu Duc. This is a beautiful place where you’ll find constructions which were palaces, the tomb (where the emperor wasn’t actually buried according to what I was told by an informative flier) and beautiful lakes.

This one is bigger than the previous tomb, so you can spend up to 2.5 hours in there if you don’t want to be in a rush. You’ll have to pay a small fee to enter this one as well (100.000 VND when I went), and once again, you’ll find plenty of people in there.

Tomb of Tu Doc - Hue, Vietnam
I’d probably rather be buried in the tomb of Tu Doc than in a secret location, as the emperor did – Hue, Vietnam

Thien Mu Pagoda

25 more minutes driving, and we got the Thien Mu Pagoda, a place right next to the Perfume River. Another beautiful place with a 7 stories pagoda and some temples inside. There was actually a religious ceremony going on at the time we went there.

You can reserve a couple of hours as well, if you want to visit without rush. The entrance to this one was free when I went, and a small research when I wrote this article showed it hasn’t changed yet. However, you could research in advance just to double check.

Thien Mu Pagoda - Hue, Vietnam
The location of Thien Mu Pagoda makes it even more beautiful – Hue, Vietnam

Imperial City

Finally, after a 15 minutes drive, my driver left me near the entrance to the Imperial City. This is the most known attraction from Hue, both for tourists and locals. There are several gardens, gates, temples and halls to see in it, just be aware you aren’t allowed to take photos in all of them. The place is huge, and you can find some cultural acts inside as well. Of course, it is usually crowded.

The entrance fee is 150.000 VND, which I consider is a super cheap price for such a good place. I’d recommend to spend at least 3 or 4 hours, but I’ll trust you if you tell me you spent even more. I didn’t spend that much time in there since: 1) I had been walking almost all day and was already tired and 2) it started raining and I just had a light t-shirt and jeans. So be prepared and hopefully you’ll get to see more than I did 🙂

Imperial City - Hue, Vietnam
One of the many gates inside the Imperial City – Hue, Vietnam

Accommodation

I went to the Ngoc Binh Hotel, the location is great as it’s on the very center of the city, and the staff is super friendly, but that’s all about it. The room wasn’t uncomfortable, but I had a carry on that had to take up to the 4th floor, since there was no elevator. It included breakfast as well, and once again, super friendly and helpful staff 🙂 The guy at the counter arranged my private driver and the transportation to Phong Nha. You can book this hotel via Agoda or Booking.

Transportation to the next city

Private van to Phong Nha, arranged by the hotel in Hue. It left me at the entrance of the hostel in Phong Nha. The original plan was to take the train from Hue to Dong Hoi (it takes around 3 hours and a half), and then take a bus or hiring an all day driver to Phong Nha (500.000 to 1.000.000 VND).

Phong Nha: Beautiful caves and other natural wonders

Phong Nha has a lot of different activities to do. Some people decide to take a motorbike and explore all the natural beauties it has to offer. You’ll find a lot of tourists in there, however Phong Nha isn’t really a party town. It’s a small town where you’ll find most of the restaurants, hostels, tourist agencies, etc. on the main road. If you still want some more party and a super chill environment, you can go to the Easy Tiger Hostel (non-affiliate).

If you want to visit the caves, you can walk along the main road and eventually you’ll see the touristic center on one side of the road, where you buy the tickets for going to the caves and pay for a boat as well. At the time of writing this article, the entry fees to the caves I visited were:

  • Phong Nha Cave: 150.000 VND. You’ll need to take a boat, which will take you to the cave. Then, you’ll go down, walk inside the cave to explore, and you’ll be picked up on the other side by the same boat. The cost of it is 360.000 VND, but it can accommodate up to 14 people. If you’re with a small group of friends, or even on your own, don’t worry about it. You’ll find a lot of people in the same situation in there. Just talk to people and arrange with several of them until you have enough people to fill the boat. While arranging the group for the boat, I started talking to some lovely Irish ladies, and we actually decided to get together the next day for our trip to the Paradise Cave, sweet 🙂
Phong Nha, Vietnam
On our way to the Phong Nha Cave – Phong Nha, Vietnam
  • Paradise Cave: The cost for this one is 250.000 VND, which is totally worth it. This is the most spectacular cave I have been to. Not that I’ve visited those many, but believe me, this cave is quite something 😉 It’s a really huge one, artificially illuminated (same as the others), which is full of giant stalactite and stalagmite formations. By the way, you don’t need to be in good shape for none of these two caves 🙂
Paradise Cave - Phong Nha, Vietnam
The Paradise Cave deserves its name, right? – Phong Nha, Vietnam
Paradise Cave - Phong Nha, Vietnam
The impressive rock formations in Paradise Cave – Phong Nha, Vietnam

Some other caves you can visit here:

  • Tien Son Cave: The entry cost is 80.000 VND
  • Dark Cave: 450.000 or 250.000 VND depending if you go on high or low season. I’ve heard different opinions about this one, will try to visit it during this upcoming trip and leave a review of it 😉

Accommodation

Since I wasn’t traveling on budget, I decided to ask for one of the private rooms in the Phong Nha Backpacker Hostel. At first I was assigned the wrong room, so I had to talk to the receptionist and show her my reservation, and then I was moved to the room I had booked. It was pretty comfortable. I think it can be an acceptable option, however next time I’d like to try Easy Tiger Hostel instead. And to be honest, the staff wasn’t helpful at all when I asked them about a place to eat. If you’re looking to a place where you can have privacy and be comfortable, a private room in here will do the job. You can book this hostel via Agoda or Booking.

Transportation to the next city

I was supposed to take a bus to Dong Hoi first, however the bus didn’t stop where I was waiting. There was a private bus picking up people, so the driver of my bus didn’t see me. Make sure to ask and clearly understand where and when will the bus stop, and be careful in case something is obstructing your sight. I had to arrange a private driver to take me to Dong Hoi (the staff at Easy Tiger Hostel were super helpful for this), and then take an overnight train to Hanoi. The train takes approximately 10 hours, but I arrived to Hanoi at 5 am so I could take full advantage of the day. When I got to the train station, since it was very early on the morning, I had to take a taxi to my hostel. I talked to several drivers which were waiting outside the station to avoid overpaying for the ride.

Some notes about the train:

  • I chose a soft sleeper, which is the most expensive one but way more comfortable than any other option. However, there are 4 sleepers per compartment. If you’re traveling with a group, you’ll be fine. In my case, I woke up several times during the night since the train staff kept opening the door to check if there was room available. And woke up again each time someone would go down, since I wanted to check on my luggage. It wasn’t my best night of sleep for sure 🙂
  • When I boarded, there were no real meals available in the train for sale. Afterwards I read a lot of people advising to take your own dinner instead of trying to buy there. My fault for not doing my homework in advance 🙂 A staff member sold me some bananas (which I’m not even sure were supposed to be sold), and they were totally overpriced (but I was really hungry). Then tried to sell me some dried fruit (guess what, overpriced again), which I declined. He even opened it and let me taste it before deciding, so that food wasn’t really to be trusted. Bottom line, take your own food to the overnight train!

And just as a funny note, at some point my carry on got full of sh*t when going to the train station! And, probably when I was entering the train, it got from the carry on to my pants! I realized until I was in my compartment… Not my luckiest day for sure ha!

Tam Coc: Where people row boats with their feet

So, I got to my hostel, slept maybe half an hour in one of the coaches near the reception, left my baggage at the storage room, and got picked up for a tour to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc. I chose the tour organized by Vietnam Unique Tours (non-affiliate). After being picked up at my hostel, our funny guide told us about the process of crossing streets in Vietnam:

  • Step 1: Be confident, or gather some courage to cross
  • Step 2: Start crossing between the motorbikes, and don’t stop
  • Step 3: Pray and be thankful about making it to the other side!
Hoa Lu - Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Beautiful gardens in Hoa Lu, plus, you don’t need to worry about hectic traffic, win! – Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Funny advice that actually reflected how chaotic the Vietnamese traffic is. Of course, he also told us about Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam. This gorgeous place, close to a river and surrounded by mountains, was the place chosen by emperors to live during a couple of centuries. And honestly, it’s not hard to understand why. You could totally picture yourself as part of the royalty and going there for inspiration and relaxation to write your poems 🙂

Hoa Lu - Ninh Binh, Vietnam
It must be easy to be inspired living at Hoa Lu – Ninh Binh, Vietnam

After our first stop, there was a bike ride to see beautiful sights from Tam Coc, including the typical rice fields. We had a good buffet lunch at a restaurant, and then, the most expected part of the journey: the boat rides. We were sent in couples to several boats, which were guided by both men and women, using their feet! It’s incredible to see the control these people have over those boats. They can make the boat turn 180 degrees using the oars with their feet, almost effortlessly. And they do this ALL DAY. I was just too amazed by the physical condition these people must have.

Tam Coc - Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Yup that’s right, she’s controlling that small boat just with her feet – Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Anyways, we went by the river, surrounded by trees and mountains… This place is just gorgeous. We met some cows crossing the river as well. Our guide kept paddling until we got to a series of dark caves, which we explored, always in the boat. We were handled some lamps so we could illuminate inside them, and were able to see some of the bats in the cave (which were not to be illuminated directly to avoid disturbing them, you don’t want a bunch of bats flying around you when you’re trapped in that boat 😉 ). The boat ride will definitely leave you feeling peaceful and relaxed.

Tam Coc - Ninh Binh, Vietnam
The definition of mind peace: Tam Coc – Ninh Binh, Vietnam

We left a tip for our boat driver, and then headed back to the city. It took some more time than it took in the morning, as the traffic was way heavier. Anyways, a very enjoyable day 🙂

Accommodation

I stayed at Hanoi Rocks Hostel. I just wanted it to spend a night, but I’d definitely recommend this place if you want a party environment and meet a lot of people. There were lots of young backpackers, the hostel organized several activities, there were lots of common areas, the beds were comfortable, the staff is super cool and there was even an hour with free beer! Of course, the line to get it was huge 😀 So, if you’re looking for some party and meeting young people, this is the place to stay! You can book this hostel via Agoda or Booking (this hostel seems to be temporary unavailable in Booking though).

Transportation to the next country

My next destination was Thailand, and I had to take a morning flight. The hostel arranged a shared taxi with a Dutch girl who was going there as well. We ended up having a very nice conversation, breakfast together at the airport and agreed on hanging out that night in Bangkok (once again, Hanoi Rocks Hostel is a great place to meet cool people). It would have been possible to take public transportation to the airport, but it would have taken at least an additional hour (the ride was already 35 minutes long), and I didn’t want to risk getting lost and losing my flight, as it was early in the morning. Next time I might try to get there via bus if I feel risky 🙂

Do You want more information?

As a final piece of advice, avoid wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts when visiting any of the religious places. You won’t like to be rejected your entrance because of this. And also, please be a nice tourist and respect such places. Even if you’re not a religious person, you should be a respectful and tolerant one. So, don’t be noisy, and if you’re going to take photos, don’t disturb people on their religious rituals.

Also, a major mistake on my trip (along many others) was to miss Halong Bay. A quick search in Google will make you understand why I feel terrible about skipping this World Heritage place (due to lack of time of course). An error I intend to correct in my next trip as well 🙂

I’ll write another article, with some of my insights about Vietnamese food, culture, curiosities, etc. So, stay tuned for the next article 🙂

What about you? What other tips do you have about traveling in Vietnam? I’d love to read your stories, tips and questions about this wonderful country in the comments section.

Some links in this page are affiliate links. This means I’ll earn a small commission from your purchase, at no additional cost to you. If you liked the article, please buy through these links and support Just One More Place.

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